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   Chapter 18 No.18

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 15669

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The next morning, when Aldous joined the engineer in the dining-room below, he was disappointed to find the breakfast table prepared for two instead of four. It was evident that Peggy Blackton and Joanne were not going to interrupt their beauty nap on their account.

Blackton saw his friend's inquiring look, and chuckled.

"Guess we'll have to get along without 'em this morning, old man. Lord bless me, did you hear them last night-after you went to bed?"

"No."

"You were too far away," chuckled Blackton again, "I was in the room across the hall from them. You see, old man, Peggy sometimes gets fairly starved for the right sort of company up here, and last night they didn't go to bed until after twelve o'clock. I looked at my watch. Mebby they were in bed, but I could hear 'em buzzing like two bees, and every little while they'd giggle, and then go on buzzing again. By George, there wasn't a break in it! When one let up the other'd begin, and sometimes I guess they were both going at once. Consequently, they're sleeping now."

When breakfast was finished Blackton looked at his watch.

"Seven o'clock," he said. "We'll leave word for the girls to be ready at nine. What are you going to do meantime, Aldous?"

"Hunt up MacDonald, probably."

"And I'll run down and take a look at the work."

As they left the house the engineer nodded down the road. MacDonald was coming.

"He has saved you the trouble," he said. "Remember, Aldous-nine o'clock sharp!"

A moment later Aldous was advancing to meet the old mountaineer.

"They've gone, Johnny," was Donald's first greeting.

"Gone?"

"Yes. The whole bunch-Quade, Culver Rann, DeBar, and the woman who rode the bear. They've gone, hide and hair, and nobody seems to know where."

Aldous was staring.

"Also," resumed old Donald slowly, "Culver Rann's outfit is gone-twenty horses, including six saddles. An' likewise others have gone, but I can't find out who."

"Gone!" repeated Aldous again.

MacDonald nodded.

"And that means--"

"That Culver Rann ain't lost any time in gettin' under way for the gold," said Donald. "DeBar is with him, an' probably the woman. Likewise three cut-throats to fill the other saddles. They've gone prepared to fight."

"And Quade?"

Old Donald hunched his shoulders, and suddenly John's face grew dark and hard.

"I understand," he spoke, half under his breath. "Quade has disappeared-but he isn't with Culver Rann. He wants us to believe he has gone. He wants to throw us off our guard. But he's watching, and waiting-somewhere-like a hawk, to swoop down on Joanne! He--"

"That's it!" broke in MacDonald hoarsely. "That's it, Johnny! It's his old trick-his old trick with women. There's a hunderd men who've got to do his bidding-do it 'r get out of the mountains-an' we've got to watch Joanne. We have, Johnny! If she should disappear--"

Aldous waited.

"You'd never find her again, so 'elp me God, you wouldn't, Johnny!" he finished.

"We'll watch her," said Aldous quietly. "I'll be with her to-day, Mac, and to-night I'll come down to the camp in the coulee to compare notes with you. They can't very well steal her out of Blackton's house while I'm gone."

For an hour after MacDonald left him he walked about in the neighbourhood of the Blackton bungalow smoking his pipe. Not until he saw the contractor drive up in the buckboard did he return. Joanne and Peggy were more than prompt. They were waiting. If such a thing were possible Joanne was more radiantly lovely than the night before. To Aldous she became more beautiful every time he looked at her. But this morning he did not speak what was in his heart when, for a moment, he held her hand, and looked into her eyes. Instead, he said:

"Good morning, Ladygray. Have you used--"

"I have," she smiled. "Only it's Potterdam's Tar Soap, and not the other. And you-have not shaved, John Aldous!"

"Great Scott, so I haven't!" he exclaimed, rubbing his chin. "But I did yesterday afternoon, Ladygray!"

"And you will again this afternoon, if you please," she commanded. "I don't like bristles."

"But in the wilderness--"

"One can shave as well as another can make curls," she reminded him, and there came an adorable little dimple at the corner of her mouth as she looked toward Paul Blackton.

Aldous was glad that Paul and Peggy Blackton did most of the talking that morning. They spent half an hour where the explosion of the night before had blown out the side of the mountain, and then drove on to Coyote Number Twenty-eight. It was in the face of a sandstone cliff, and all they could see of it when they got out of the wagon was a dark hole in the wall of rock. Not a soul was about, and Blackton rubbed his hands with satisfaction.

"Everything is completed," he said. "Gregg put in the last packing this morning, and all we are waiting for now is four o'clock this afternoon."

The hole in the mountain was perhaps four feet square. Ten feet in front of it the engineer paused, and pointed to the ground. Up out of the earth came two wires, which led away from the mouth of the cavern.

"Those wires go down to the explosives," he explained. "They're battery wires half a mile long. But we don't attach the battery until the final moment, as you saw last night. There might be an accident."

He bent his tall body and entered the mouth of the cavern, leading his wife by the hand. Observing that Joanne had seen this attention on the contractor's part, Aldous held out his own hand, and Joanne accepted it. For perhaps twenty feet they followed the Blacktons with lowered heads. They seemed to have entered a black, cold pit, sloping slightly downward, and only faintly could they see Blackton when he straightened.

His voice came strange and sepulchral:

"You can stand up now. We're in the chamber. Don't move or you might stumble over something. There ought to be a lantern here."

He struck a match, and as he moved slowly toward a wall of blackness, searching for the lantern, he called back encouragingly through the gloom:

"You folks are now standing right over ten tons of dynamite, and there's another five tons of black powder--"

A little shriek from Peggy Blackton stopped him, and his match went out.

"What in heaven's name is the matter?" he asked anxiously. "Peggy--"

"Why in heaven's name do you light a match then, with us standing over all those tons of dynamite?" demanded Peggy. "Paul Blackton, you're--"

The engineer's laughter was like a giant's roar in the cavern, and Joanne gave a gasp, while Peggy shiveringly caught Aldous by the arm.

"There-I've got the lantern!" exclaimed Blackton. "There isn't any danger, not a bit. Wait a minute and I'll tell you all about it." He lighted the lantern, and in the glow of it Joanne's and Peggy's faces were white and startled. "Why, bless my soul, I didn't mean to frighten you!" he cried. "I was just telling you facts. See, we're standing on a solid floor-four feet of packed rock and cement. The dynamite and black powder are under that. We're in a chamber-a cave-an artificial cavern. It's forty feet deep, twenty wide, and about seven high."

He held the lantern even with his shoulders and walked deeper into the cavern as he spoke. The others followed. They passed a keg on which was a half-burned candle. Close to the keg was an empty box. Beyond these things the cavern was empty.

"I thought it was full of powder and dynamite," apologized Peggy.

"You see, it's like this," Blackton began. "We put the powder and dynamite down there, and pack it over solid with rock and cement. If we didn't leave this big air-chamber above it there would be only one explosion, and probably two thirds of the explosive would not fire, and would be lost. This chamber corrects that. You heard

a dozen explosions last night, and you'll hear a dozen this afternoon, and the biggest explosion of all is usually the fourth or fifth. A 'coyote' isn't like an ordinary blast or shot. It's a mighty expensive thing, and you see it means a lot of work. Now, if some one were to touch off those explosives at this minute-- What's the matter, Peggy? Are you cold? You're shivering!"

"Ye-e-e-e-s!" chattered Peggy.

Aldous felt Joanne tugging at his hand.

"Let's take Mrs. Blackton out," she whispered. "I'm-I'm-afraid she'll take cold!"

In spite of himself Aldous could not restrain his laughter until they had got through the tunnel. Out in the sunlight he looked at Joanne, still holding her hand. She withdrew it, looking at him accusingly.

"Lord bless me!" exclaimed Blackton, who seemed to understand at last. "There's no danger-not a bit!"

"But I'd rather look at it from outside, Paul, dear," said Mrs. Blackton.

"But-Peggy-if it went off now you'd be in just as bad shape out here!"

"I don't think we'd be quite so messy, really I don't, dear," she persisted.

"Lord bless me!" he gasped.

"And they'd probably be able to find something of us," she added.

"Not a button, Peggy!"

"Then I'm going to move, if you please!" And suiting her action to the word Peggy led the way to the buckboard. There she paused and took one of her husband's big hands fondly in both her own. "It's perfectly wonderful, Paul-and I'm proud of you!" she said. "But, honestly, dear, I can enjoy it so much better at four o'clock this afternoon."

Smiling, Blackton lifted her into the buckboard.

"That's why I wish Paul had been a preacher or something like that," she confided to Joanne as they drove homeward. "I'm growing old just thinking of him working over that horrid dynamite and powder all the time. Every little while some one is blown into nothing."

"I believe," said Joanne, "that I'd like to do something like that if I were a man. I'd want to be a man, not that preachers aren't men, Peggy, dear-but I'd want to do things, like blowing up mountains for instance, or finding buried cities, or"-she whispered, very, very softly under her breath-"writing books, John Aldous!"

Only Aldous heard those last words, and Joanne gave a sharp little cry; and when Peggy asked her what the matter was Joanne did not tell her that John Aldous had almost broken her hand on the opposite side-for Joanne was riding between the two.

"It's lame for life," she said to him half an hour later, when he was bidding her good-bye, preparatory to accompanying Blackton down to the working steel. "And I deserve it for trying to be kind to you. I think some writers of books are-are perfectly intolerable!"

"Won't you take a little walk with me right after dinner?" he was asking for the twentieth time.

"I doubt it very, very much."

"Please, Ladygray!"

"I may possibly think about it."

With that she left him, and she did not look back as she and Peggy Blackton went into the house. But as they drove away they saw two faces at the window that overlooked the townward road, and two hands were waving good-bye. Both could not be Peggy Blackton's hands.

"Joanne and I are going for a walk this afternoon, Blackton," said Aldous, "and I just want to tell you not to worry if we're not back by four o'clock. Don't wait for us. We may be watching the blow-up from the top of some mountain."

Blackton chuckled.

"Don't blame you," he said. "From an observer's point of view, John, it looks to me as though you were going to have something more than hope to live on pretty soon!"

"I-I hope so."

"And when I was going with Peggy I wouldn't have traded a quiet little walk with her-like this you're suggesting-for a front seat look at a blow-up of the whole Rocky Mountain system!"

"And you won't forget to tell Mrs. Blackton that we may not return by four o'clock?"

"I will not. And"-Blackton puffed hard at his pipe-"and, John-the Tête Jaune preacher is our nearest neighbour," he finished.

From then until dinner time John Aldous lived in an atmosphere that was not quite real, but a little like a dream. His hopes and his happiness were at their highest. He knew that Joanne would go walking with him that afternoon, and in spite of his most serious efforts to argue to the contrary he could not keep down the feeling that the event would mean a great deal for him. Almost feverishly he interested himself in Paul Blackton's work. When they returned to the bungalow, a little before noon, he went to his room, shaved himself, and in other ways prepared for dinner.

Joanne and the Blacktons were waiting when he came down.

His first look at Joanne assured him. She was dressed in a soft gray walking-suit. Never had the preparation of a dinner seemed so slow to him, and a dozen times he found himself inwardly swearing at Tom, the Chinese cook. It was one o'clock before they sat down at the table and it was two o'clock when they arose. It was a quarter after two when Joanne and he left the bungalow.

"Shall we wander up on the mountain?" he asked. "It would be fine to look down upon the explosion."

"I have noticed that in some things you are very observant," said Joanne, ignoring his question. "In the matter of curls, for instance, you are unapproachable; in others you are-quite blind, John Aldous!"

"What do you mean?" he asked, bewildered.

"I lost my scarf this morning, and you did not notice it. It is quite an unusual scarf. I bought it in Cairo, and I don't want to have it blown up."

"You mean--"

"Yes. I must have dropped it in the cavern. I had it when we entered."

"Then we'll return for it," he volunteered. "We'll still have plenty of time to climb up the mountain before the explosion."

Twenty minutes later they came to the dark mouth of the tunnel. There was no one in sight, and for a moment Aldous searched for matches in his pocket.

"Wait here," he said. "I won't be gone two minutes."

He entered, and when he came to the chamber he struck a match. The lantern was on the empty box. He lighted it, and began looking for the scarf. Suddenly he heard a sound. He turned, and saw Joanne standing in the glow of the lantern.

"Can you find it?" she asked.

"I haven't-yet."

They bent over the rock floor, and in a moment Joanne gave a little exclamation of pleasure as she caught up the scarf. In that same moment, as they straightened and faced each other, John Aldous felt his heart cease beating, and Joanne's face had gone as white as death. The rock-walled chamber was atremble; they heard a sullen, distant roaring, and as Aldous caught Joanne's hand and sprang toward the tunnel the roar grew into a deafening crash, and a gale of wind rushed into their faces, blowing out the lantern, and leaving them in darkness. The mountain seemed crumbling about them, and above the sound of it rang out a wild, despairing cry from Joanne's lips. For there was no longer the brightness of sunshine at the end of the tunnel, but darkness-utter darkness; and through that tunnel there came a deluge of dust and rock that flung them back into the blackness of the pit, and separated them.

"John-John Aldous!"

"I am here, Joanne! I will light the lantern!"

His groping hands found the lantern. He relighted it, and Joanne crept to his side, her face as white as the face of the dead. He held the lantern above him, and together they stared at where the tunnel had been. A mass of rock met their eyes. The tunnel was choked. And then, slowly, each turned to the other; and each knew that the other understood-for it was Death that whispered about them now in the restless air of the rock-walled tomb, a terrible death, and their lips spoke no words as their eyes met in that fearful and silent understanding.

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